Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Bill Bryson Sets Us All Right

I spend a lot of time thinking about English; specifically, how dogmatic one should be? How does one know when to balk at and when to embrace a change in the language? This quotation from Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue: English And How It Got That Way has some good common-sense advice:

"One of the undoubted virtues of English is that it is a fluid and democratic language in which meanings shift and change in response to the pressures of common usage rather than the dictates of commmittees. To interfere with that process is arguably both arrogant and futile, since clearly the weight of usage will push new meanings into currency no matter how many authorities hurl themselves into the path of change.

"But at the same time, it seems to me, there is a case for resistng change–at least slapdash change. Even the most liberal descriptivist would accept that there must be some conventions of usage. We must agree to spell cat c-a-t and not e-l-e-p-h-a-n-t, and we must agree that by that word we mean a small furry quadruped that goes meow and sits comfortably on one's lap and not a large lumbering beast that grows tusks and is exceedingly difficult to housebreak. In precisely the same way, clarity is generally better served if we agree to observe a distinction between imply and infer, forego and forgo, fortuitous and fortunate, uninterested and disinterested, and many others."

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Baby Sign Language

I've been reading Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, and his big subject seems to be language use by young children as evidence that the human brain is hardwired to receive and manipulate language. So I'm intrigued that he doesn't say anything about Baby Sign Language. Maybe he does, but somewhere else. Or maybe it just hasn't been studied much. I know some people think it's a symptom of overachieving parenthood, like trying to raise majestic superchildren by playing them Bach in the womb and so on. But I think it's intriguing.

The gist is that you can teach preverbal kids sign language, and there's a fledgling standard system that's partly related to ASL (why they don't simply use ASL, I don't quite get...) Anyway, you can get baby board books with signs for things like "more", "enough", "hurt", "drink", "cat", "bird" and "flower". My sister used these with her daughter, and I found it fascinating.

The biggest advantage for parents is that it allows kids to clearly express ideas like "I'm thirsty", "I'm full", "I'm still hungry", "I've had enough of this game" and "It hurts". My niece unequivocally used the signs to communicate these ideas well before her first birthday. In fact, it was during her first birthday party that she made her first identified sentence-like communication. My brother was playing the (questionably advisable) game of turning the oven light on and off for her amusement. At one point, he flicked the switch off, and she made the signs for "more" and "light" in succession.

Another thing I found interesting was that my niece used signs to "talk" to herself. We sometimes would watch her amusing herself with her toys while making signs that made sense in context (as in "Here's a kitty", "Here's a birdie").

Well before her first birthday, she clearly showed that she grasped the idea that a concept can be signified or made manifest in numerous ways. For instance, she would use the sign for "flower" to indicate different types of flowers, so she clearly reconized that a tulip, a dandelion and a rose are all "flowers", even though they don't look much alike. She also used it for pretend flowers, floral patterns on fabric, quite abstract illustrations and, on one occasion, for a whirligig on a stick.

The signs allowed windows into her personality that might otherwise have remained closed. Once she gestured inquiringly to an bandaid on my brother's finger. He said and signed that it was a hurt. The next day when he walked in, she approached him and made the hurt sign, indicating his hand, with a demeanor that seemed to suggest that she was asking, as an adult might, "How's your hurt finger"? Even if that interpretation reads too much into the situation, it's clear that she remembered the hurt the next day.

Somewhat related: I like gardens, and would frequently talk/sign to her about them. When I arrived for visits, she would often make the flower sign as soon as she saw me, showing at least that she recognized me as something like "the one who likes flowers" (I'm certain she didn't think I was a flower), and perhaps demonstrating the wish to communicate a much more sophisticated idea, like "So, Sarah, how's your garden doing?" or "Seen any nice flowers lately?"

Again, I'm no scientist, so I might well be reading too much into that interpretation – which is why I'd love to read some solid research by the Pinkers of this world on the subject.

(Photo by kahanaboy from Morguefile.)

Monday, April 16, 2007

Miraculous Survivors of Electrocution

Lots of specialized words describe how someone dies. For instance, "execution" is when someone is killed by a body or person in authority (justly or otherwise) for crimes they have actually or allegedly committed. "Asphyxiation" is when someone dies for lack of oxygen. "Decapitation" is when someone has their head cut off.*

There are also a lot of words ending in "-cide" ("homicide", "suicide", "matricide", "patricide", "regicide", "genocide", "infanticide", "pesticide", "spermicide", and so on) that specify who exactly is being offed. Wikipedia has a great list of these, of which the best is "vespacide", for the killing of wasps, which reminds me that those little scooters must have the name they do because they buzz around annoyingly. But I digress.

"Electrocution" is one of the former type, but unlike – say – "defenestration", which means "throwing or being thrown out a window", it's always fatal. To electrocute someone is to kill them by administering a lethal dose of electricity. A non-lethal dose of electricity is just an electric shock, not an electrocution. So be skeptical next time someone tells you they were electrocuted when they took the fuzzy blankets out of the dryer.

*The same word applies in French, and figures in one of my all-time favourite gruesome Montreal tabloid headlines: "Decapitée en cherchant le corps de son fils", about a woman whose head was skimmed off by a wire while she was snowmobiling in the dark in search of her son's body. He had gone through thin ice on another snowmobile, I think: a quintessential Quebec tragedy.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Finding the Afikomen

I'm still chuckling about a Jon Stewart thing the other night. (Probably most of North America is doing the same thing, but only half a million or so of us will blog about it, so there.) Stewart caught me with a bit about a dogged TV news reporter whose specialty is personally recreating peculiar scenarios that pop up in the news – in this case, falling off a cruise ship and being lost at sea.

Among other things, Stewart poked fun at the reporter for pointing out earnestly to a Coast Guard rescuer that finding people at sea is as hard as (wait for it) "finding a needle in a haystack". Open-mouthed mugging from Stewart, who offered a few better similes, finishing with " finding the afikomen... in a really big house!" Then an aside along the lines of "That'll please about 16 Jews. The rest of you won't have a clue what I'm talking about."

Well, while I was studying Hebrew (and Latin and Greek and German... oy!) at university, I kept getting invited to Passover dinners (seders), although I'm not myself Jewish. And somehow I was always the youngest one (a mere 23 or so), so I kept being given a lot of songs and readings to do, and being made to go find the afikomen.

At which point I should explain that the afikomen (stress on the third syllable) is a piece of broken matzoh that is wrapped in a napkin and hidden before the seder. The children get to look for it (think: Easter eggs); or sometimes they "steal" it and get to "ransom" it back to the grownups. Different families have different traditions around the afikomen; some keep part of it in the house for the year the way Roman Catholics keep blessed palm fronds after Palm Sunday.

Actually, even apart from the Easter-egg and palm-frond tie-ins, the afikomen is one of those points where Jewish and Christian traditions share common DNA. The Christian Last Supper was a seder, and the bread that Jesus blessed – commemorated as the sacred wafer in Christian services – was essentially a broken matzoh. The afikomen, if you will. In the Jewish tradition, the afikomen stands for the sacrificial lamb that could not be prepared in the days of the destruction of the temple; the Christian wafer stands for the body of Jesus, the sacrificial lamb... the parallel couldn't be much closer.

So whereas I've been laughing with pleasure at being reminded of this longish funny word with such a tremendously specific meaning, those four syllables have also brought back to me the recollecton of a whole fabric of interlaced threads that bear reflection at this time of year. (The first day of Passover is Tuesday, April 3 this year, and Holy Thursday, the commemoration of the Last Supper, is April 5, with Easter on the 9th.)

Flashback to a typically tasteless Family Guy joke a few nights earlier, with a nerdy Jewish guy fleeing from a Hitler scarecrow (dear God, was it referred to on the show as a "scareJew"???) yelling "Save Jon Stewart! He's our most important Jew!" Tasteless, yes, but there's a point there.

Time to Disembark

Here's another one that makes me throw up in my mouth a little: "deplane". These days, airplane passengers are generally given instructions upon landing about "deplaning", as in "please remember to take all your belongings with you when you deplane". (This one wasn't around as recently as the mid-'80s, to the best of my recollection.)

Why did we need "deplane" when we already had lots of other ways to express this idea, like "disembark", for instance? You might think a new word had been chosen because it's easier for non-English speakers to understand. But "disembark" has cognates in French (désembarquer), as well as Spanish and Italian, whereas "deplane" does not.

By the way, I'm guessing that the "bark" part of "disembark" might be related to "bark/barque", meaning a boat, (It's related to the French "barque" and the Spanish/Portuguese/Italian "barca"). So "disembarking" is "getting off the boat". (The airship, if you'd like to put it in terms Mr. Burns might understand.)

On the other hand, the "deplane" formation makes me think of words like "delouse", "debug", "detoxify" and, for that matter, "de-ice". In all these words, the "de-" prefix has the sense of getting rid of something – often a whole lot of unwanted somethings. "Deplaning" conjures up the image of combing a bunch of pesky airplanes out of wet, tangly hair. Or it could be one of those unpleasant military euphemisms like "collateral damage", as in "Sir, we can now report that the area has been fully deplaned".

I find that flying is stressful enough; I'd like to be allowed to disembark peacefully. At the worst, I suppose I wouldn't mind "debarking". Or, in the interests of supreme simplicity, couldn't the powers that be just tell us to be careful to take everything with us when we "leave the plane"?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

I Feel Obliged To Point Out...

...that "obligated" is an unnecessary neologism. I cringe every single time I hear it. It must be a back-formation from "obligation". But we already had the perfectly good word "oblige", as in "I am obliged to admit that I find this obligation tedious". No need at all for the clumsy-sounding "obligated".

True, some verbs are shaped this way ("incubate", "concentrate" and so on). But this isn't one of them.

If you think this point tiresomely pompous and pedantic, consider how you'd feel if someone said "I just just realizated that I missed my dental appointment" or "I enjoy conversating with smart people" or "The local theatre company just dramatizated the story of our town".

Not so nice, is it?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Less is Neither More Nor Fewer

"Less" and "fewer" mean different things. "Less " refers to a smaller quantity of anything that can be measured by volume. "Fewer" refers to a smaller number of anything that can be counted.

So you might have less water in a reservoir, less gas in your tank, less spring in your step or less hope for future generations.

You might have fewer students in this year's English class, fewer mosquito bites on your arm, fewer chances to ski since Global Warming began to make itself manifest or fewer grammatical mistakes in this essay than the last one.

However, if you use the phrase "less people", that conjures up the idea that you have ground up the people in question, possibly in a gigantic blender, and poured some out. A truly horrific notion, as I'm sure you'll agree.

Which Hunter

I find it interesting that Stephen King spends quite a bit of time defending the importance of correct grammar in his excellent and inspiring On Writing, yet his editor allowed him to misuse "which" consistently throughout.

"Which" and "that" are both used to introduce subordinate clauses: groups of words that tell us more about the word or phrase they modify. However, "that" generally tells which of several examples of a thing is being referred to. (Often, when used before verbs, it gets dropped out of sentences these days.) "Which" is used to give an extra tidbit of information.

The Canadian Press Stylebook explains this in more technical terms when it says: "That often introduces an essential clause – one that... cannot be omitted. (...) Which introduces a non-essential or parenthetical clause – one that adds information that could be omitted without changing meaning."

Check out these examples:

"The puppy that died was the smallest of the litter." (There were several puppies. Only one died.)
"The puppy, which died, was the smallest of the litter." (By the way, the small puppy died.)

"The bowl that is full of soup is on the counter." (There are lots of bowls, but only one has soup.)
"The bowl, which is full of soup, is on the counter." (There's only one bowl. Watch out! It's full of soup.)

"The book that I am reading is interesting." (This means "of all my books, the one I'm reading right now..." These days, it's apt to be changed to "The book I'm reading...")
"The book, which I am reading, is interesting." (A bit sarcastic, possibly to be read in a Houselike tone: Can't you see I'm reading, you moron?)

Notice that if you drop out the red bits, you still get the essential meaning of the sentence, but if you drop out the purple bits, you have trouble knowing which dog, which bowl, which book.

If you still can't tell, speak the sentence out loud. If you hear yourself making a comma-sized pause before the "which-or-that" part of the sentence, the word that you want is "which".

On an Annoying Basis

If you'd like to shorten a piece of writing, check to see whether you've used any examples of a contemporary plague phrase: "on a [stick any old adjective here] basis". You can pretty much always change it to a single word, as follows:

"He goes for a walk on a daily basis" becomes "He goes for a daily walk"
"I visit my mom on a weekly basis" becomes "I visit my mom weekly" (or "every week")
"It's important to change your furnace filter on a regular basis" becomes "It's important to change your furnace filter regularly"

And so on. (The only exception would relate to an arrangement for paying back a loan, where installments might be set up on a monthly basis, or perhaps on a 28-day basis, in which case the loan would be paid back with significantly less interest.)

Bye-bye to "Healthful"

We've lost this battle, but I thought I'd like to stick a pin in the map to show where there used to be a perfectly good word: "healthful". It meant "good for you", and, in relation to food, was similar in meaning to "nutritious".

A piece of toast or a tomato might be "healthful" when eaten. However, a piece of toast cannot be "healthy", which means "enjoying good health". A tomato can only be "healthy" if it's still on the vine, thriving and free from disease.

Now, food is considered "healthy" if it's good for you. So is a brisk walk. So is a good attitude. Good-bye, healthful!